The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare for the District of Columbia and other major cities that public transit was a lifeline for essential workers, and that even modest fares could be a burden to them.
So the nation’s capital is introducing a groundbreaking plan: It will begin offering free bus fares to residents next summer.
Other cities, including Los Angeles and Kansas City, Missouri, suspended fare collection during the height of the pandemic to minimise human contact and ensure that residents with no other travel options could reach jobs and services at hospitals, grocery stores and offices.
But DC’s permanent free fare plan will be by far the biggest, coming at a time when major cities, including Boston and Denver, and states such as Connecticut are considering broader zero-fare policies to improve equity and help regain ridership that was lost with the rise of remote and hybrid work. Los Angeles instituted free fares in 2020 before recently resuming charging riders. Lately, LA Metro has been testing a fare-capping plan under which transit riders pay for trips until they hit a fixed dollar amount and then ride free after that, though new Mayor Karen Bass has suggested support for permanently abolishing the fares.
Analysts say DC’s free fare system offers a good test case on how public transit can be reshaped for a post-pandemic future.
“If DC demonstrates that it increases ridership, it reduces the cost burden for people who are lower income, and it improves the quality of transit service in terms of speed of bus service, and reduces cars on the road; this could be a roaring success,” said Yonah Freemark, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. “We just don’t know yet whether that would happen.”
The US$2 fares will be waived for riders boarding Metrobuses within the city limits, beginning around July 1. In unanimously approving the plan last week, the DC Council also agreed to expand bus service to 24 hours on 12 major routes downtown, benefiting nightlife and service workers who typically had to rely on costly ride-share to get home after the Metro subway and bus system closed at night.
A new US$10-million fund devoted to annual investments in DC bus lanes, shelters and other improvements was also approved to make rides faster and more reliable.
“The District is ready to be a national leader in the future of public transit,” said DC Council member Charles Allen, who first proposed free fares in 2019 and says the programme can be fully paid for with surplus DC tax revenue. Roughly 85 per cent of bus riders are DC residents. The Metro system also serves neighbouring suburbs in Maryland and Virginia.
About 68 per cent of DC residents who take the bus have household incomes below US$50,000, and riders are disproportionately black and Latino, compared with Metrorail passengers, according to the council’s budget analysis.
Not everyone is a fan.
Peter Van Doren, a senior fellow at the DC-based Cato Institute, said the plan risks high costs and mixed results, noting that the opportunity to improve ridership may be limited because bus passengers have been quicker to return to near pre-pandemic levels. He said government subsidies to help lower-income people buy cars would go further because not everyone has easy access to public transit, which operates on fixed routes.
“The beauty of automobiles is they can go anywhere and everywhere in a way that transit does not,” he said. “We don’t know the subset of low-income people in DC where transit is a wonderful option, as opposed to not such a wonderful option.”
The council’s move, which will be finalised in a second vote later this month, came over the concerns of DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who supports the concept of free fares but raised questions about the US$42-million annual cost over the long term. “District residents and taxpayers will have to pay for this programme,” she wrote in a letter to council members. “Our neighbours, Virginia and Maryland, should absorb some of these costs as their residents will benefit from this programme as well.”
Allen also had proposed a US$100 monthly transit benefit for DC residents to access the Metrorail system, but shelved the plan until at least fall 2024, due to the US$150- million annual estimated cost. He described free bus fares as a “win-win-win” for the District because they will help the transit system recover and offer affordable, green-friendly travel, while boosting economic activity downtown.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which currently faces a budget deficit of US$185 million, part of which it attributes to fare evasion, praised the plan as “bold”. It said it looked forward to working with the city council, mayor and regional stakeholders “towards our goal of providing more accessible and equitable service for our customers”.
Nationwide, while transit ridership has returned to about 79 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, that figure varies widely by region. In New York City, for instance, MTA chief executive Janno Lieber has suggested that city and state government step up to pay for trains and buses more like essential public services, such as a fire department, citing millions of transit riders he believes may never come back. In 2019, fares made up over 40 per cent of total transit revenue there, but have since slid to 25 per cent, leading to an anticipated US$2.5-billion deficit in 2025, along with the risk of soon using up the transportation authority’s federal COVID relief funds.
In DC, where bus fares amount to a modest 7 per cent of total transit operating revenues, the transit agency may be able to more easily absorb losses from zero fares, said Art Guzzetti, the American Public Transportation Association’s vice-president of mobility initiatives and public policy. He noted savings for city taxpayers from speeding up boarding, which could allow for more routes and stops, as well as reducing traffic congestion and eliminating the need for transit enforcement against fare evaders.
Currently, DC bus ridership stands at about 74 per cent of pre-pandemic levels on weekdays, compared to 40 per cent for Metrorail.
Still, free fares can be a tough choice for cities. “If the consequence of a zero-fare programme is you have less funds to invest in frequent service, then you’re going backwards,” Guzzetti said.
In Kansas City, which began offering zero fares for its buses in March 2020 and has no planned end date, officials said the programme has helped boost ridership, which has risen by 13 per cent in 2022 so far, compared with the previous year. The free fares amount to an US$8-million revenue loss, with the city paying for more than half of that and federal COVID aid covering the rest through to 2023, said Cindy Baker, interim vice-president for the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, who describes the programme as a success.
The programme has eliminated altercations between passengers and bus drivers over fares, although there have been more instances of passenger disputes due to an increase in homeless riders, according to the agency. Baker said the transit agency has been adding security in response to some rider complaints.
Ch? Ruddell-Tabisola, director of government affairs for the Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington, cheered free fares as a much-needed economic boost, showing DC’s commitment to the well-being of late-night bartenders and restaurant workers needing an affordable way home.
“A lot of industries have moved on from the pandemic, but for DC’s bars and restaurants, the pandemic is still happening every day,” he said, citing the effects of hybrid work, inflation, gun violence and other factors that have hollowed out the downtown area. “Anything that helps encourage diners to get to downtown DC and enjoy the world-class dining and entertainment we have is a great thing.”